When reporting on sloppy science, NY Times ‘Well’ section should practice what it preaches

By | November 2, 2018

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Kevin Lomangino is the managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @KLomangino.

A New York Times column on Monday bemoaned the sorry state of much nutrition research, saying it’s too often poorly designed and riddled with conflicts of interest.

The headline: Confused by Nutrition Research? Sloppy Science May Be to Blame

Written by longtime “Personal Health” columnist Jane Brody, the piece is based on a new book, “Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat,” by New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, PhD.

Taking its lead from the book, the column examines the myriad ways that nutrition studies can be skewed by various biases, and how financial incentives especially can impact what questions researchers ask about food and how the results are framed. (We’ve written about these issues many times.)

Brody’s conclusion:

Consumers who are not scientifically savvy can be easily misled by the findings of studies, especially when they emanate from a prestigious institution or professional association. Dr. Nestle says such organizations need to pay closer attention to both blatant and potential conflicts of interest lest they be caught touting sloppy science.

What about news organizations?

The column is well worth reading in its entirety, and I was pleased to see a reference to the University of Maryland chocolate milk scandal that we were the first to write about.

But overall I think the piece provides an incomplete summary of how misleading messages about science can reach the public.

Prestigious institutions and professional organizations aren’t the only ones who can be caught touting sloppy science — news organizations also can fall into the same trap, as we’ve documented at HealthNewsReview.org in great detail.

And if the New York Times is truly concerned about helping consumers understand scientific studies, why isn’t it doing a better job of addressing the issues Brody raises in its own reporting? Especially worrisome is the newspaper’s “Well” section, which covers popular wellness topics like fitness, nutrition, and emotional health.

The Well section is unwell

If you’re not aware of the “Well” section’s checkered track record on these issues, I encourage you to read any of the many posts we’ve written about their incomplete and inaccurate coverage on nutrition and other health topics. The concerns Brody raises in her column — the limits of observational studies, the problems with industry-funded research, the folly of focusing on the health effects of individual foods — are easily identified in studies that the Times reports on regularly. And yet the Times frequently fails to address those issues in its coverage, instead passing along misleading messages that reflect the researchers’ (and sponsors’) flawed framing.

Brody’s “Personal Health” column and the “Vital Signs” feature written by Nicholas Bakalar are arguably the worst offenders. They are often brought to our attention by readers who say the reporting is shallow and simplistic. Here are a handful of our recent critiques:

You can’t have it both ways

The New York Times isn’t the only news outlet that wants to have it both ways — warning of science misinformation with one hand while blithely casting clickbait with the other.

But it’s the only outlet I know of whose readers consistently and emphatically call attention to its misleading health care news.

I encourage the Times editors to listen to those readers, and to practice what Jane Brody preaches (well, at least in her most recent column).

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